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protectionism tariffs Richard Marles Christopher Pyne
Shadow Minister for Defence Richard Marles and Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne.

Christopher Pyne and Richard Marles are two of parliament’s most underemployed politicians, given that despite their frontbench duties, and Pyne’s role as Leader of the House, they have their own Sky News show. But they’re also two of parliament’s worst protectionists.

At a conference yesterday in Canberra, the respective defence frontbenchers tried to be holier than thou on defence protectionism. According to Pyne, Labor might cancel the submarine contract with France’s Naval Group — the subject of an extended argument with France — if they get elected.

“I would like to get that signed before the election because Labor might of course abandon half a dozen submarines if the find they SPA has not been signed,” he said.

If only, Minister. That might save taxpayers from overpaying for these things by tens of billions of dollars but, sadly, no such outbreak of common sense is likely.

Marles took another tack. Self-evidently it wasn’t the case that the Coalition wasn’t being protectionist on defence; the problem, he claimed, was that it didn’t believe, in its heart of hearts, in protectionism as a strategy:

It is really critical that in having a defence industry we have one which is underpinned by proper strategic rationale. It is not good enough to simply move down the path of the defence industry because as a particular government you’ve lost the car industry on your watch and you’re using this as a proxy for industry policy in general. That is not a sustainable proposition. There needs to be a proper strategic rationale for why we should be making defence equipment in this country. Labor is committed to that…”

This is almost theological stuff. Pyne is the pre-Reformation Catholic Church on the sale of indulgences, saying all you have to do is fork out the money, and that will save you. Marles is Martin Luther, insisting one must have faith, that salvation cannot be bought through “good works” but must be secured through faith alone. It is only after one believes that the good works happen.

Scott Morrison has a different philosophical problem with Donald Trump (whom Morrison has been desperately trying to emulate). Of course, Morrison can’t go all the way with Trump on protectionism, given the only consistent part of the Liberals’ economic rhetoric in recent years has been support of free trade. So a couple of days ago, Morrison was denying Trump was a protectionist at all, saying at the G20 summit:

From the meeting I had with the President and the Vice President two weeks ago, the suggestion that the path the United States is pursuing has a protectionist motivation, I think is false, that has been confirmed to me on a number of occasions now.

Alas, Donald Trump overnight disagreed:

I am a Tariff Man. When people or countries come in to raid the great wealth of our Nation, I want them to pay for the privilege of doing so. It will always be the best way to max out our economic power. We are right now taking in $billions in Tariffs. MAKE AMERICA RICH AGAIN.

Peter Fray

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